Alumni News

In November 2013, Johnny Bennett was in dire straits. He was facing the death penalty, but his state court lawyer had stopped practicing law. He needed a new lawyer.

So he went to Lindsey Vann, L’12.

Vann is a staff attorney for Justice 360, a nonprofit resource center for attorneys representing people who are facing the death penalty. She didn’t hesitate to take Bennett’s case.

“I technically did have a choice of whether to take the case or not,” Vann said, “but it often does not really feel like a choice when someone’s life is on the line.”

Vann was taken aback by the racial biases she saw in Bennett’s case.

“He was sentenced to death in the ’90s, and his death sentence was overturned,” Vann said. “But then he was re-sentenced in 2000. It was an all-white jury, and the solicitor used racially coded language. He called my client ‘King Kong,’ and he referenced that my client had an interracial relationship, for example. In post-sentencing hearings, one of the jurors said he thought Johnny committed the crime because he was just a ‘dumb n-word.’”

After re-sentencing, Bennett moved for a new trial, but the court denied his request. In 2008, he sought post-conviction relief and was again denied. Throughout the process, the courts attempted to dismiss the racially coded language.

“[They said] ‘King Kong’ could mean he’s a big guy,” Vann said, explaining the courts’ reasoning. “[And they said] ‘The juror, yeah, that might show he’s racist, but it doesn’t prove he was racist during the sentencing.’”

Vann was appointed to present a subsequent appeal to the federal district court in South Carolina. For only the second time in the modern era, the Fourth Circuit affirmed habeas relief in a South Carolina capital punishment case. They ruled the state court decisions were unreasonable in light of the racially coded language used.

But Vann knows, in spite of her successful case, that there is more work to be done combating injustices. Racial comments, she says, undermine Americans’ trust in the criminal justice system.

“We’ve done research on implicit bias,” Vann said. “We think that decision-makers in the justice system everywhere are making decisions based on racial bias that they might not even recognize. And the story we laid out in Johnny’s case demonstrates that we’re not making this up.”